Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard. It involves working with little to no validation or guidance, screwing up constantly, having to rectify those screwups, and running the risk that all of your blood, sweat, tears, financial freak-outs, and self-aggrandizing fantasies will go in vain. It’s an emotional rollercoaster without a seatbelt. And that’s why the administration should be supporting entrepreneurs here at Columbia. They can start by giving us the office space we need to operate.
Until now, undergraduate and even Business School entrepreneurs have had to hold meetings, prepare for pitches, and write code in dorms, libraries, and classrooms. These are hardly suitable settings for a business.
Now, let me be clear: Entrepreneurship is about scrappiness. It’s about getting stuff done by any means necessary, in any context. I have spent many nights in the dimly lit classrooms of Hamilton working on my own startup, and I plan on spending many more. But the more resources provided an entrepreneur, the more a culture and network of entrepreneurship gets established, and the easier it becomes to prioritize work with no immediate validation (your company) over work with constant validation (school).
Luckily, the administration, at University President Lee Bollinger’s bidding, is launching a new entrepreneurship initiative on campus. The initiative is being spearheaded by trustee emeritus Richard Witten, director for entrepreneurship Chris McGarry, and angel investor, former entrepreneur, and adjunct professor Dave Lerner. The mission is to reinvigorate the startup scene in Morningside Heights. This has been a long time coming. After all, Columbia is in New York, now commonly referred to as “Silicon Alley,” and has well-regarded engineering and business schools. Some enormously successful startups—the latest being Codecademy, a platform that crowdsources user-made code tutorials—have also been started here.
Some of the more notable facets of Bollinger’s initiative are entrepreneur office hours for the whole school, venture capital office hours for teams that are farther along, startup law tutorials, Columbia mentorship and coaching from successful alumni entrepreneurs, and a speaker series that began with Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square.
Last but not least is a push for some much-needed startup workspace. Harvard’s Innovation Lab consists of “nearly 30,000 square feet of space, with more than 250 workstations, 24 conference rooms, most with projection capability, a workshop/prototyping room, a next-generation classroom, video conference suite, treadmill desk, and [a] stocked kitchen”, according to its website. Cornell is building a campus on Roosevelt Island for its new two-and-a-half-acre NYC tech campus. If we mean to keep pace with these perennial rivals, we must at least come up with some semblance of an entrepreneurial coworking space on campus for students with real businesses.
Schools themselves these days are run like businesses, and not only do these businesses need to adhere to the arbitrary criteria of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, but they also need to adhere to those of a changing world. The world we live in is one in which the safe routes are becoming less profitable and more competitive; one that requires adaptive skills, collaboration, and innovation; and a world in which entrepreneurship can be an incredible vehicle of social change. After its 2008 economic meltdown, Iceland rebuilt its constitution via citizen input on Twitter. Facebook was instrumental in Egypt’s April 6 movement, which in turn played a role in dictator Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
Startups are important, impactful, and growing in number. It would be incredible if starting one weren’t mutually exclusive with going to school. Facebook and Microsoft could have been started in Harvard’s Innovation Labs, and the next Codecadamy at Columbia’s equivalent.
Bollinger’s new entrepreneurship initiative has all of the right ingredients, and my personal experience with its directors, especially Dave Lerner, has been nothing but positive. But this is only the start. Our endowment is the size of a developing country’s GDP. Let’s start using it on a bunch of crazy kids with world-changing ideas.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history.
This article is part of a series reflecting on Columbia’s start-up week, and the relationship between entrepreneurship and students on campus and beyond.
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